The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t officially hit the ice until mid-September.
However, that won’t stop some young players from getting a head start.
For the second-straight season, the Penguins prospects will take part in a four-team rookie tournament in Kitchener, Ontario. The prospects arrive in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and have three days of practices before departing for Kitchener to take on prospects from the Maple Leafs, Panthers and Senators.
The Penguins first participated in the tournament last year and won the event. However, that’s not the only reason they are excited to go back this season.
“First and foremost, when you have a rookie camp and when you participate in a rookie tournament like we did, it allowed the players to showcase their skills within a group of their peers, as opposed to coming in to a giant training camp with a lot of NHL veterans, which can be intimidating,” Penguins Assistant General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “It allowed those players to participate within their peer group against other teams with players of a comparable age group and it allowed us as a management, scouting and coaching staff to spend more time with them individually and get to know them individually as well as watch their performance on the ice. I think it allows the organization to spend more time with the players and to get a better sense of where the younger players are in their development as opposed to throwing them into the fire, so to speak, of immediately immersing them into a giant training camp with a lot of veteran players, where sometimes they can get lost.
“In terms of the overall impact, I think it allows the players to show what they can do. Sometimes when you just practice, it’s hard for a player to show what he can do. In a game situation, a defensive defenseman can show his skills; an offensive defenseman can show his skills; a tougher, grittier player can showcase his skills and, obviously, skilled players can demonstrate their talents. It allows every player what he can do and how he can contribute,” he continued. “Looking back to last year, we had 15 players who were on the tournament team that ended up in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season. A lot of friendships are formed and a lot of chemistry is built and I think, over the course of an AHL season, these guys came together and had a tremendous run in Wilkes-Barre. Certainly, I don’t think you can overlook the importance of having a successful start to the year that we did in Kitchener, especially when we won the tournament.”
Last year’s tournament allowed some players to get a good head start on the season.
“Kris Letang and Tyler Kennedy both participated in the tournament and had successful starts to their season and that momentum carried over through to the early portion of the season and they were able to make the Pittsburgh lineup,” Fletcher said. “A young player like Dustin Jeffrey had a very solid tournament. He gained a lot of confidence and ended up coming into camp, having a good camp, getting into a couple exhibition games and ultimately getting a contract. Other players like Alex Grant and Luca Caputi showed us what they could do. Even veteran players like Ryan Stone, Jonathan Filewich and Tim Wallace – a lot of these players were able to show leadership and get some confidence early in training camp and all three had very good seasons right through Wilkes-Barre’s playoff run and right into the Calder Cup Finals. I think everybody was able to take a little bit away from it. When they do come to the main camp, a lot of these players already have a week of camp under their belts and they have some confidence and they are able to step into the main camp environment maybe with a little less trepidation and more confidence and show what they can do better against the NHL players.”
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Dan Bylsma and assistant Todd Reirden will coach the Penguins’ team at the tournament. Fletcher, along with GM Ray Shero and the rest of the front office and scouting staff will attend the practices and games, as will Penguins head coach Michel Therrien and assistants Mike Yeo, Andre Savard and Gilles Meloche. All will evaluate the prospects’ performances, but not in the same way for each player.
“There are different things you’re looking for from different players. There are some who will be pro hockey players for the first time this year. This season, in the case of Alex Goligoski or Ben Lovejoy, these players have played a year of pro hockey and we certainly expect Ben and Alex to be real good players in this tournament,” Fletcher said. “There are other players that will be going back to juniors – a young player like Nathan Moon, who still has two years of junior eligibility after this season. So, we just want him to make a positive first impression. We aren’t expecting him to be the best player in this tournament. We’re hoping for a player who can showcase his talents.
“You’re looking for different contributions from different players. You certainly expect more from the players who have been through this camp before and maybe have pro experience versus a young kid in his first training camp who was recently drafted. But, you expect the players to play hard and fit into the group and you expect them to contribute to the extent they can contribute.”
The Penguins open the round-robin tournament on Saturday, Sept. 13, against the Maple Leafs at 6 p.m. They take on Florida on Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. and close the tourney with a 2 p.m. game against the Senators on Sept. 15. There will be no championship game this year, to limit the event to three games in three days for each squad.
Regardless of the outcome, there’s a good chance the Penguins will head back to Kitchener next year.
“I think so. Every year, we evaluate the overall experience and what the players got out of it and what we felt the organization was able to gather from the scouting portion of the tournament. It’s great,” Fletcher said. “This year, we’re going to be able to have three practices here before we participate in the tournament, so we will have a chance to practice a little and do some skill evaluations in the practice portion of it and then get into a game situation. That will be a very good experience. I think anytime you can take a group of rookies and separate them from the main camp and spend a little bit of time with them, there’s a better development opportunity and a better evaluation opportunity.”
The Penguins’ main training camp opens Sept. 16 in Pittsburgh.